Seven Marines, including a junior officer, were killed and 21 other soldiers were wounded in a clash with Abu Sayyaf bandits early Thursday in the forests of Patikul, Sulu province, the military said.
The Western Mindanao Command (Westmincom) said the Marines suffered casualties but overran a camp of the bandit group known to have links to al-Qaida and Jemaah Islamiyah, a regional terrorist network.
In Zamboanga City, Lt. Col. Randolph Cabangbang, the Westmincom spokesperson, said the military was not yet able to say if there were any Abu Sayyaf casualties.
He told the Inquirer that the clash between soldiers from the Marine Battalion Landing Team 11 and Abu Sayyaf gunmen took place in Barangay Panglahayan at 4:30 a.m.
The bandits were led by Radulan Sahiron, an Abu Sayyaf leader also known by his alias, Putol, Cabangbang said.
Soldiers have been combing Sulu for weeks in search of kidnap victims, among them a Malaysian gecko trader and an Indian national.
“Based on the report they sent to us, the troops were conducting a maneuver operation since Wednesday night, and at early dawn they hit a big camp of the Abu Sayyaf. It was when the fight started,” Cabangbang said.
He said the Marines were able to penetrate the camp “but the militants were positioned on higher ground, that’s why we had casualties.”
Despite the large number of military casualties, the Abu Sayyaf gunmen withdrew into the woods after five hours of fighting and government forces captured the bandits’ hideout.
At the Armed Forces of the Philippines headquarters in Quezon City, the AFP spokesperson, Commodore Miguel Rodriguez, said the military scored a strategic victory when the Marines overran the Abu Sayyaf camp in Sulu “at a loss of seven gallant Marines.”
Paying tribute to the Marines who gave their lives in the operation, Rodriguez said: “Nothing is free. We understand the nature of our profession… when we have to put our lives on the line so we can get rid our country of terrorism.”
“We are saddened by the fact that we have casualties in the incident,” presidential spokesperson Edwin Lacierda said at a news briefing in Malacañang.
“But that is the role of our military men and women, to defend our country against enemies within and without,” Lacierda said.
Rodriguez said at the Camp Aguinaldo briefing that operations would continue against the Abu Sayyaf.
He said Sahiron and another Abu Sayyaf leader, Isnelon Hapilon, were among the “high-value targets” being hunted down.
Sahiron and Hapilon were sighted during the attack on the camp, Rodriguez said.
“There is a determined effort to eradicate them. We’re not giving up easily. The encounter was very close… (that’s why) we have suffered casualties,” the military spokesperson told reporters.
He said the Abu Sayyaf fought hard to defend the encampment “as it would be weakness on their part if they did not do so.”
“They would find it difficult to regain control of the camp. The troops’ determination led to the capture of that encampment… We were the ones who attacked them,” Rodriguez said.
Asked about casualties on the bandits’ side, he replied: “Definitely (there are casualties). It was a close fight. But… we are still waiting for the report.”
Cabangbang said that initially, two soldiers were reported dead and that five others were missing.
“Later in the day the five missing were found dead, which explains why the figure rose (to seven),” Cabangbang said.
But Brig. Gen. Romeo Tanalgo, the Sulu military commander, maintained that only six soldiers were killed.
“It was a major encounter,” Tanalgo said without providing additional details.
A military source privy to the retrieval of slain and wounded soldiers confirmed Cabangbang’s figure and added that among those killed was a second lieutenant.
Cabangbang said the wounded soldiers were extricated from the encounter site.
He said Westmincom deployed four helicopters (two MG520s and two Hueys) and a Navy boat to help bring the wounded soldiers to hospitals. Bad weather caused some delays in the evacuation of the wounded.
Marine soldiers, backed by air, sea and ground support, continued to comb the slopes of Mounts Tunggol and Gasam following the clash with some 70 Abu Sayyaf gunmen, Tanalgo told Inquirer in a text message.
Soldiers recovered a rocket-propelled grenade launcher left behind by the fleeing gunmen but there were no reports of enemy casualty yet, he said.
“As the ASG (Abu Sayyaf Group) scampered from the pursuing Marines. Forces from the AFP supported by air and naval assets have joined the hot pursuit,” Tanalgo said.
The Marines have been battling the Abu Sayyaf in Sulu and other areas of Mindanao for years.
In 2007, the Marines suffered their worst debacle when gunmen identified with the Abu Sayyaf beheaded and mutilated 14 soldiers in Basilan.
Despite the deaths of most of its senior leaders, the Abu Sayyaf has remained a security threat.
The US government has offered a $5-million reward for Hapilon’s capture.
Sahiron, an aging Abu Sayyaf figure who has a $1-million bounty on his head, is easily identified because he lost his right hand fighting security forces in the 1970s.
The Abu Sayyaf also has been blamed for the country’s worst terrorist attacks.
These include the bombing of a passenger ferry in Manila Bay in 2004 that killed more than 100 people, as well as a string of high-profile abductions targeting foreigners and locals.
Hundreds of US troops have been deployed in Jolo and other parts of Mindanao since 2002 to help eliminate the Abu Sayyaf.
However, the American soldiers are only allowed to train Filipino soldiers, and not engage in any combat operation.
The Philippine and US militaries have described their joint operations in Mindanao as a success, saying the Abu Sayyaf threat has diminished and its numbers are down to just a few hundred.
However, Thursday’s clash shows the Abu Sayyaf is still able to conduct deadly operations.
There have also been a string of kidnappings in Mindanao in recent months that authorities suspect have involved the Abu Sayyaf.
The military and police blamed the Abu Sayyaf for kidnapping a Malaysian trader in Jolo in May. The kidnappers have demanded an P8-million ransom for his release.
The Abu Sayyaf was also blamed for kidnapping an Indian national who was visiting his Filipino wife’s hometown in Jolo last month. No ransom demand, if any, has been made public. With reports from Norman Bordadora, AFP and AP